Say the name Stefan Demos to a Northwestern football fan and you’ll probably elicit a groan. Despite being a part of one of the most successful stretches in program history, from 2008 to 2010, Demos is most often remembered for missed kicks that contributed to two heartbreaking bowl game losses.
As the punter in the 2008 Alamo Bowl against Missouri, he mishit a punt that led to a Jeremy Maclin return for a touchdown. More painful for NU fans was the 2010 Outback Bowl in Tampa against Auburn, when he barely missed a game-winning field goal as time expired, then kicked another off the post in overtime before taking a hit and tearing ligaments in his ankle.
Today, Demos—a 2011 NU grad and Scottsdale, Ariz., native—is kicking for the San Antonio Talons of the Arena Football League. ChicagoSide caught up with Demos by phone before his game last weekend against the Chicago Rush, when the Talons notched their tenth straight win and clinched a playoff berth. The responses below have been condensed and edited.
ChicagoSide: How did you end up on the Talons? Did you go to an open tryout?
Stefan Demos: About three or four days after the TicketCity Bowl last January, I got surgery [on my hip] and kind of thought my career was over. Then I found out the surgery went well, was able to play, and came back. Obviously, we were in a lockout year in the NFL, which didn’t help…. Then I saw these open tryouts were coming up for the UFL and the Arena League and I realized that San Antonio didn’t have a kicker at the time…. I came into training camp with two other guys and won the job.
ChiSide: Did you know anyone else who was playing in the Arena League at the time?
SD: Not really. During the lockout last year I had worked out with the Arizona Rattlers, just in case the NFL didn’t work out and they needed someone. So I knew a couple people, but I kind of came into it blind.
ChiSide: You guys play your home games in the Alamodome. Was that the first time you had been in that stadium since the Alamo Bowl?
SD: Yes. It’s weird because our field setup is basically from the 30-yard line going in, it’s all sectioned off so it only holds about 20,000-30,000 people, whereas during the actual Alamo Bowl it holds like 70,000 people.
ChiSide: How does it feel to win in that stadium after your first experience in the bowl game?
SD: I never even thought about that way, to be honest with you. [Laughs.] That was kind of the funny thing, I sort of forgot about the Alamo Bowl. Last week we had a game in Tampa, and I realized that was my first time there since the Outback Bowl. It brings back some memories from it, but comparing wins and losses from college and what I’m doing now is a totally different spectrum. Obviously, those bowl games are really high pressure, championship type games, so it’s a different experience in a regular season game. Arena League is an 18-game season.
ChiSide: What’s the mood like on an Arena League team? Are people excited to be playing professionally, or do people just treat it like a job?
SD: It’s a little bit of both. I’m learning as I go along as well. I was a little naïve when I got here, to be honest with you. At the end of the day it is a job, even though we get a paycheck to play football. At the same time—this is going to sound weird and selfish—but in college you just want to win as a team. That’s all that matters, that the team wins, whether you played good or bad. We beat Illinois my senior year. I missed three field goals but we won, so that was all that mattered. In the pros, if I miss all my kicks and we win, I’m still fired. [Laughs.] You have to look out for yourself now.
ChiSide: The Talons have a few guys who have been on NFL rosters, right?
SD: Yeah, there are a few. One of my good friends here is Jason Willis; he spent five years as a receiver in the NFL. We have between half dozen and a dozen guys that have either been active on a roster or been in training camp or on a practice squad.
ChiSide: Are guys still trying to make it to the NFL?
SD: Absolutely. It’s a mixed bag, kind of like the NFL, I suppose. Some guys still feel they never got their right shot, some feel like they may have been overlooked, and this is a place to get some game tape. It depends on the guy. I don’t sell myself short in any fashion, I still think I can kick at a very high level and I’ve shown this year I can kick at a high level. Do I want to make the NFL? Absolutely, that would be great. But at the same time, I’m realistic. There are only 30 jobs in the NFL, and 60 kickers that will make training camp this fall. Right now most teams have two kickers on the roster. I’m not on that roster right now. [Laughs.]. So if I get to play in the Arena League for a few years and never get a call, I can live with that because I’m enjoying myself and I’m getting a paycheck to play football, which is not something that everyone can say they’ve done.
ChiSide: How different is it being a kicker in the Arena League compared to your college career at Northwestern?
SD: Oh, it’s way different. I tell people that it’s similar in the fact that you’re kicking, but it’s different in the whole operation. First of all, the end zone is only eight yards. In college I took kickoffs from ten yards back, so I had to adjust everything. I’m only three or four yards back now. The posts are obviously much smaller, less than half the size of college. Personnel wise, we only have 21 active players for games, eight on eight. Our long snapper is a linebacker. Our holder is a receiver. This year I’ve had two or three snappers and three or four holders in fourteen games. We’re in the Alamodome for practice, but the posts aren’t up usually during the week, so I don’t actually get to work on posts until pregame. Obviously, Arena League is high scoring, there’s anywhere from eight to ten touchdowns scored a game. I’ve probably kicked off more this season than I did two or three seasons in college. It’s a lot of wear and tear, especially for me. I guess I could be labeled as “hip fragile” [Laughs.] so I have to be careful with what I’m doing.
ChiSide: Are you hitting people more often with the Talons?
SD: It’s like night and day. I think I may have had two or three [tackles] a year in college. And we were joking about it at our walkthrough, I’m leading the league for kickers with 9.5 and a forced fumble. They don’t count the fumble as a tackle, so it’s basically 10 tackles and a forced fumble in 14 games. I don’t think I had 10 tackles in my career at Northwestern.
ChiSide: Is there more pressure on you now playing professionally, or was there more pressure on you in college?
SD: I had pressure kicks my whole career. Every kick is a pressure kick. In college, you’re on scholarship. It’s not like you’re going to have a bad game and they’re going to pull your scholarship; that doesn’t happen. At Northwestern it definitely doesn’t happen. If you have a bad game or a bad season, as long as you come to work every day to work hard, you’re not going to lose your job. You may not start, but you’re not going to lose your scholarship.
The first three or four games for me here, I really struggled with all the adjustments, the posts, the snapper, the holder. It was weird because that was the first time in my career that I thought I could be out of a job next week. After the first three or four weeks I was dead last in extra-point percentage. It’s kind of like a quicksand effect, you miss one and your next thought is “Well, I better not miss this next one.” Instead of going out there and just having fun like I should have, I was thinking I better not miss or I might lose my job. That was the mentality I had. [Laughs.] Luckily, the coaching staff and the players had my back, and since that fourth game I’ve missed very few times. I cracked the top five or six in all the kicking categories.
ChiSide: Did you get noticed on campus more after that Outback Bowl?
SD: I don’t know if I got noticed more, but I had more people talk to me. Maybe someone that before would see me and wouldn’t talk to me, once that stuff went down it was, “Hey, there’s the kicker, I’m going to go talk shit to him.” [Laughs.]
ChiSide: How did you feel about Auburn prematurely celebrating winning that game [in overtime]?
SD: I honestly don’t know. I didn’t see it.… I didn’t know it hit the post until that night.
ChiSide: Were you just in pain after the hit?
SD: As soon as I kicked it and looked up, I saw the ball moving up, and then BAM!—I took that shot to my leg. I didn’t know what happened. It hurt. My ankle, I tore all the ligaments and whatever. So I just went down. I didn’t really realize what happened until after the game. They were trying to tape me as much as they possibly could so I could go in and kick a short one to tie it. But I just couldn’t stand up. I didn’t actually see them celebrate until…. Unfortunately, the plane on the way back home had ESPN. I was watching SportsCenter on the way home and I caught the glimpse of it.
ChiSide: Well, that’s a bummer.
SD: Yeah. [Laughs.] It was kind of awkward, the first time. Seeing that on the plane, sitting there in a boot with crutches….
ChiSide: There was a story that went around campus that winter about a professor who didn’t know what happened in the game in one of your classes. Do you remember anything about that?
SD: This is bad to say, but I didn’t go to class very much for a couple weeks…. It wasn’t something I wanted to deal with. I took it pretty hard early on…. Nobody on this earth wanted to make it more than I did, and nobody felt worse about it after. But people still voice their displeasure. [Laughs.] So I just left it alone, stayed in my house with my roommates, and that was pretty much it.
ChiSide: And you guys wouldn’t have been in the Outback Bowl without those field goals against Wisconsin and Purdue, or the last-second kick against Eastern Michigan.
SD: Yeah, it’s funny. Kicking is just a weird position in general. I literally went from consensus second team All-Big Ten and Lou Groza semifinalist…and then to miss in that fashion flipped everything 180. I remember going out for the first game of my senior year and I was getting booed at home…. I’m sure if you sat around and had a conversation with a Northwestern football fan and my name came up, they’d say “He sucks, he’s one of the worst ever.” If you take a look at what I did in my career as a whole, obviously I would disagree. [Laughs.] I did a lot for the university on and off the field. I was an Academic All-American; I did a lot of community service, things like that. But on the field, I was a good performer, other than a couple games. I played hurt my whole senior year. It wasn’t a picture perfect career by any means, but I certainly wouldn’t say I was among the worst.
ChiSide: You’ve talked to [former Northwestern kicker] Sam Valenzisi a few times over the course of your career. Did you talk in the aftermath of that bowl game?
SD: Yeah, we talked. Kickers understand each other more than maybe the average person or someone in the media would….
At the end of the day, I look back at it. I missed a 48-yarder…just left. Then I had a 44-yarder…just barely right. The one in overtime didn’t even count, if you look at the stat sheet it doesn’t even count. The only thing it did was mess up my leg. That was about it. Do I think I should’ve made them? Sure. Do I wish I could make them? Sure. And I had made them over the course of the year. That was the frustrating part. I knew I could make the kicks. I just didn’t on that particular day.
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KEVIN McFARLAND is a writer for The A.V. Club in Chicago. As a 2011 graduate of Northwestern who has attended the past four bowl games, he’s still waiting for that pesky postseason victory.